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'Make it a new Thanksgiving': Therapist gives advice on managing holiday anxiety, expectations

To help our mental health this holiday season licensed marriage and family therapist Laura Rhodes-Levin says focus on gratitude, appreciation and the positives.

PORTLAND, Oregon — The stress of this year is compounded these days with the added anxiety of the holidays.

This week, it's focused on Thanksgiving plans and what to do in the COVID-19 era. On Tuesday, a therapist offered advice for navigating tough decisions as a family.

Like everything in 2020, Thanksgiving will look different. As coronavirus cases spike, public health officials encourage people to stay home this holiday.

A week out, many Portlanders said they're heeding that advice.

"It's just been a year of changes for everybody. But we're just going to keep it low-key," said Rae Gonzalez. "We're following the guidelines and just staying in and going to do something simple -- make a turkey for my husband and I."

Some families plan to feast together virtually, which is what public health experts recommend you do with family outside your household.

"We are all going to have dinner at the same time and have the same dinner but do it at three different locations," said Scott and Ann Ehrhardt. "We’re a military family and we moved around a lot. And it's the first time in the last couple years we’re all in the same place at the same time and it really, you know, hurt the kids and grandkids that we can’t all be together at the same time."

RELATED: Tips for safely celebrating Thanksgiving amid COVID-19 pandemic

It's not an easy choice; given how tough the year has been, most people just want love and hugs from their family. But, of course, not all family members sit on the same page.

"Trying to decide what’s right for family and what’s right for the community and they don’t always go together right now," said Portlander Alexi Bien. "It's really tough, but just trying to be respectful of everybody's perspective and understanding that people may have different levels of comfort right now."

Lizzy and Kyle Conway have a baby on the way. They've been very cautious throughout their pregnancy. Normally, they celebrate holidays in Colorado with family. But this year isn't normal.

"They're all loud, it's a big house - that's going to be so weird, just the two of us," the Conways said. "That’s what makes it hard is just really sort of us being alone out here and them being there and us missing out. It’ll be something we think about, especially on Thanksgiving Day."

"You've got to do what makes you feel comfortable," said licensed marriage and family therapist Laura Rhodes-Levin. "And if you're the one person sitting across the room in a mask, that's OK! Everybody doesn't have to agree with you as long as you're feeling safe and comfortable."

Rhodes-Levin said there's anxiety around managing family members' expectations and making decisions about how to spend the holiday. Navigating conversations with family members this year could be challenging. If you're still trying to settle on what to do for Thanksgiving and how to tell your family, Rhodes-Levin said stop waiting, bite the bullet and go with your intuition.

"It's OK that people are upset," she said. "Setting boundaries is really healthy for everybody because when we don't set boundaries someone is always resentful. The best way to do that is to stay true to yourself."

To help our mental health this holiday season Rhodes-Levin said focus on gratitude, appreciation and the positives. We can do that by expressing gratitude for things we never realized mattered before.

She also recommended we spend time in nature and craft something for our family members who we can't visit with.

"This year everybody really reevaluated their value system and what’s important to you and that we need to try being grateful for things we've never been grateful for," Rhodes-Levin said. "Make it a new Thanksgiving, make it a new 'thanks.'"

"So often when we hear about the holiday season it's: how do we get together with the relatives and the fighting and the personalities," she said. "And now maybe we have a new appreciation for that."